NEW ORLEANS – Police with bullhorns plan to go street to street this weekend with a tough message about getting out ahead of Hurricane Gustav: This time there will be no shelter of last resort. The doors to the Superdome will be locked. Those who stay will be on their own.
New forecasts Friday made it increasingly clear that New Orleans will get some kind of hit — direct or indirect — by early next week. That raised the likelihood people would have to flee, and the city suggested a full-scale evacuation call could come as soon as Sunday.
Those among New Orleans' estimated 310,000 to 340,000 residents who ignore orders to leave accept "all responsibility for themselves and their loved ones," the city's emergency preparedness director, Jerry Sneed, has warned.
As Katrina approached in 2005, as many as 30,000 people who either could not or would not evacuate jammed the Louisiana Superdome and the riverfront convention center. They spent days waiting for rescue in squalid conditions. Some died.
Stung by the images that flashed across the world, including the photo of an elderly woman dead in her wheelchair, her bodied covered with a blanket, officials promised to find a better way.
This time, the city has taken steps to ensure no one has an excuse not to leave. The state has a $7 million contract to provide 700 buses to evacuate the elderly, the sick and anyone around the region without transportation.
Officials also plan to announce a curfew that will mean the arrest of anyone still on the streets after a mandatory evacuation order goes out. Police will roam neighborhoods urging residents to flee, and officials will text-message residents with major storm developments. In addition, the city will reach out to churches, hoping to spread the word about where the buses will pick up evacuees.
In an effort to keep track of where people go after they leave the city, officials plan to give evacuees bar-coded bracelets containing their ID.
Still, advocates for the poor worried that the message would not get to the city's most marginalized residents — and that could spell disaster.
"It's an enormous concern, an extraordinary concern" for day laborers, the homeless, renters and public-housing residents, said Saket Soni, director of the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice. "Hundreds if not thousands will fall through the cracks of an evacuation plan, and they will be left in the city, not out of choice but out of necessity."
Gustav strengthened into a hurricane Friday and appeared to stay on track to hit the Cayman Islands, then western Cuba before moving into the warm waters of the Gulf bound for the U.S. coastline early next week. At 5 p.m. EDT, Gustav's center was about 100 miles east of Grand Cayman, and the storm had top sustained winds of 75 mph.
FEMA Deputy Administrator Harvey Johnson said Friday he anticipated a "huge number" of Gulf Coast residents will be told to leave the region this weekend.
Those in most need of help — the elderly, sick, and those without transportation — will be moved first. Mayor Ray Nagin said buses and trains would begin to evacuate those people beginning early Saturday morning. Those on buses will go to shelters farther north, Sneed said. Those on trains will go to Memphis, Tenn. Neighboring states already were making offers to house evacuees, remembering how many people fled Katrina.
Several parishes announced plans for evacuations beginning Saturday. By early Sunday, Nagin said officials would look at the potential for a mandatory evacuation.
In Mississippi, Gov. Haley Barbour had already called for the evacuation of residents along the Katrina-scarred coast, many of whom still live in temporary housing. And in Louisiana, residents of low-lying Grande Isle were under a voluntary evacuation order beginning Friday. The community is traditionally one of the first to vacate when tropical weather threatens.
Making the decision about exactly when and where to evacuate was tough. Gustav confounded emergency preparedness officials as its forecast track shifted through the day, confronting them with the possibility of ordering evacuations not only in the New Orleans area but across more than 200 miles of vulnerable coastline. Johnson said officials in four states — Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas — planned evacuations.
Authorities also wanted to avoid creating any unnecessary panic.
In New Orleans, the locations of the evacuation buses were not made public because people who need a ride are supposed to go to designated pickup points, not to the staging area.
But that approach worried some residents. Elouise Williams, 68, said she called the city's 311 hot line Thursday until she was "blue in the face."
She was concerned about getting a ride to the pickup point and about what would happen to those who left. As of late Friday afternoon, she planned to remain in the Algiers neighborhood and look in on any other residents who stayed behind.
"My thing is, my fright is, if we have somebody in these houses and they're not able to get out, they're going to perish," she said, "And we had enough of that in Katrina."
Critics said New Orleans was waiting too long. Bob Wheelersburg, a former Army Reserve major and liaison officer for emergency preparedness, said National Guard units are suffering from equipment and manpower shortages.
"If I was the governor of Louisiana, I'd give the evacuation order as soon as possible," Wheelersburg said. "I think it's going to be a huge disaster."
But authorities have emphasized that New Orleans can't just up and leave — there is a phased order to evacuations, and coastal communities or those outside of levee protections get first crack and moving residents out.
Some residents weren't waiting for a formal call — they left Friday, long before the storm was even close to the shoreline.
"I'm getting out of here. I can't take another hurricane," said Ramona Summers, 59, whose house flooded during Katrina. She hurried to help friends gather their belongings. Her car was already packed for Gonzales, nearly 60 miles away.